What is Physics First?

“A yearlong course in Physics taught during the freshman year of high school or 9th grade, is the beginning of the Physics First sequence.” “The Physics First approach has the potential to provide students with a solid intellectual foundation for the study of chemistry and biology later in their high school education as well as to increase the coherency of the secondary school science curriculum.” (Excerpts from the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) booklet “Physics First.”

“Physics First calls for a re-sequencing of high school courses so that students study physics before chemistry and biology.Physics First is spearheaded by Leon M. Lederman, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1988. The rationale for Physics First is stated on the Project ARISE website:

“High schools overwhelmingly insist that students start their science study (and often end it) with 9th or 10th grade biology, occasionally preceded by a course in earth science or introduction to physical sciences. The sequence of high school study in science is then biology, chemistry and physics – a sequence set out in 1894 on the recommendation of a prestigious national commission. Today these courses are treated as independent, having nothing to do with one another. It is our contention that this sequence is inappropriate and does not respect the development in the disciplines over the past century.”

Why Physics First?

Compelling Developments in Science and Education make Physics First more important today than ever before:

  • Today’s society relies more upon science and technology, so more students need to learn more science. This is crucial to both employment and to the exercise of responsible citizenship.
  • A physics-chemistry-biology sequence leads the student from the simple to the complex, an approach which is in harmony with current understanding of how the brain learns.
  • Understanding modern biology, for example the function of DNA, requires a background in chemistry, physics, and mathematics.
  •  Moreover, chemistry is based upon the charge structure of atoms and the forces between these charges, concepts learned in physics.
  • A largely conceptual physics course starts with concrete experiences from students’ daily lives, e.g., from sports, transportation and safety. Investigating the plausibility of popular science fiction may add to the appeal.
  • Today, algebra classes start earlier, often in eighth grade, and support the earlier study of physics and chemistry. At the same time, real-world science applications can motivate students to learn many more mathematical tools.

Information on Physics First Programs Nationwide

Course Descriptions and Coding

DESE coding: The course name is:  Physics First, #135950.  The description reads:  All secondary science and mathematics certified teachers are allowed to teach the conceptual physics course.   Local LEAs need to verify appropriate training to teach the course.

That course would minimally expect student mastery of all expectations in Strand 1: Matter and Energy not covered in the Chemistry course, and all of Strand 2: Force and Motion. It would also be appropriate to integrate those expectations in Strand 5: Earth Systems and Strand 6: Universe that apply understanding of the Physics concepts.

The NCES descriptions most appropriate for MO use are “Physics: First Year,” with the addition of thermodynamics and laws of conservation. “Conceptual Physics” might be appropriate if the course curriculum and expectations maintains the rigor of the expectations articulated in those Grade Level Expectations mentioned above. Chemistry understandings addressed by a “Conceptual Physics” curriculum should be limited to an introduction of atomic structure necessary for the development of conceptual understanding of interactions between atoms/molecules and energy. Therefore, a semester dedicated to introducing basic chemistry understandings, as typically taught in a “Physical Science” course, should not be a part of the freshman physics course. It is more appropriate to wait to teach the chemistry concepts (periodic properties of elements, chemical reactions, stoichiometry, etc.) in the year-long sophomore Chemistry class, after the student has mastered basic physics concepts.

Sample Course Descriptions used by Partner Districts

Columbia School District

Regular Physics

Physics emphasizes the science behind real world applications of electricity, motion, forces energy, and more. Hands-on explorations using math and technology are incorporated to gain well-rounded knowledge of physics concepts. Students will accumulate data, construct graphs and develop mathematical models to describe the physical world. Lab activities are designed to develop skills in experimental design and data analysis. Students will use experimental design to solve problems discussed in class. One Physical Science Credit.

North Kansas City School District

Physics: Credit: 1 Prerequisite: None

Physics is the study of the interactions of matter and energy. This course will focus on introducing students to the language of Physics as well as the motion of bodies, both large and small. Models and graphical analysis are used to explain the phenomena of motion. Experimental investigations are key elements in the instructional strategies.

North Kansas City School District

Challenge Physics Credit: 1 Prerequisite: Algebra I.

Challenge Physics is the study of the interactions of matter and energy. This course will focus on introducing students to the language of Physics as well as the motion of bodies, both large and small. In addition to models and graphical analysis, basic math calculations are used to explain the phenomena of motion. Experimental investigations are key elements in the instructional strategies.

Course Assignment/Titles and Descriptions (Physics and Astronomy)

Astronomy (133810) – A study of the sun, the solar system, galaxies, nebulae, “black holes,” comets and lesser space bodies.  Integrated into the course are discussions and student applications of astronomical instruments.  Some principles of space flight are also presented.

Physical Science (usually 9th Grade) (135010) – An introduction to the concepts of matter and energy and their interactions.  Elementary atomic and kinetic theory are discussed.  Also, the basic principles of work, force, mass, weight, volume, and the forms of energy are introduced.

Physics (135900) – Level I:  This course might include topics such as the characteristics, properties, and change processes of matter; definition and causes of motion; equilibrium; kinds of energy; static and moving charges; magnetism; and introductions to waves, light, and sound.  This level may be taught in the middle school.  Level II:  This level might include the relationships between electricity and magnetism and between matter and energy; the laws of conservation; energy transformation; and wave and particle phenomena.  Level III:  This level would present more detailed studies of the second level topics, concentrating on particular subtopics such as optics, thermodynamics, quantum physics, electromagnetism, or fluid dynamics. 

Principles of Technology (135910) – A broad, technically-oriented course that provides secondary vocational students with a foundation for more education and training in advanced-technology career paths.  Each unit deals with one principle as it applies in the four energy systems–mechanical, fluid, thermal, and electrical–that make up both simple and complex technological devices and equipment.  (CIP Code 40.0899)

More courses, MO-DESE list | More courses, NCES List